Sunday :: Aug 17, 2003

Preventing Blackouts in the Future


by Mary

The blackout on the east coast once again proves that large complex systems are inherently susceptable to catastropic failure. The way to reduce the possibility of catastrophic failure is not to build even bigger networks with more complex backup systems, it is to rethink the problem. The people at the Rocky Mountain Institute have written a number of articles and books on this topic. After 9/11 they joined James Woolsey in writing Energy security: it takes more than drilling where they noted:

Energy security starts with using less energy far more efficiently to do the same tasks. The next step is to obtain more energy from sources that are inherently invulnerable because they're dispersed, diverse, and increasingly renewable.

Now it is increasingly clear that the blackout happened on some Ohio lines which are owned by First Energy. The suspicion is that one of the alarm systems were broken.

First Energy is also the owner of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio which has been the center of much controversy when it was discovered that it had a hole in the reactor head during one of the routine NRC inspections. Davis-Besse is the classic example of all the ways that nuclear power is extremely risky. The risk comes because it relies on complex backup systems that are not maintained and often cannot be tested properly and human error which then triggers the backup systems. Once people realized there was a problem at Davis-Besse, further investigation has shown that a key backup system, the pump values that need to be opened in order to contain a problem were completely defective and never worked. First Energy was aggressively challenging the NRC and getting away with it before the accidental discovery of the hole that started the rigorous inspection of Davis-Besse. (The Plain Dealer has a very comprehensive set of articles on this issue.)

We should not and cannot rely on the private energy companies to provide solutions to these problems. Many of these companies are cutting back in order to keep in front of their massive debts. And one thing I would bet is that Bush's solutions will make the situation worse, not better.

As environmentalist I've thought for a long while that if we were going to do anything about Global Warming, one of the best ways to really get a handle on the problem would be to provide the best of our energy efficient technology to the third world rather than handing down all our most polluting technology. In this regard, wouldn't be easier and faster to get reliable power to the Iraqi people by building up a solar power network? Certainly Iraq would be a great place to use the sun to power their electricity needs. One of the biggest advantages of using solar power is that it can be a distributed, non-centralized power system. Each neighborhood could have its own power system and it would be highly non-polluting. I wonder if it might be cheaper than rebuilding the entire infrastruction that is currently the focus of the rebuilding efforts.

A decentralized, energy efficient and renewable energy system would make it easier to prevent human error, provide less of a target for terrorists and would increase our security in the long run. It has the added virtue of not needing rigorous regulations and oversight.

Update: Veiled4Allah has some excellent information and history on the malfeasance on First Energy. I wonder what role they played in Cheney's energy task force.

Update 2: Pessimist provided a link to a story that says there have been some new breakthroughs in creating solar panels that could significantly reduce the cost of manufacturing them. This is really good news indeed.

Mary :: 9:42 AM :: Comments (6) :: Digg It!